Before CM Punk embarks on a scathing promo that forever changed the trajectory of his wrestling legacy, we bear witness to a John Cena defeat. The year is 2011. The date is June 6th. Cena was in the midst of his 10th WWE Championship reign. But this period of WWE would be known as the “Summer of Punk”.
As with all John Cena losses, CM Punk costs Cena the match by way of interference and distraction. Interference and distraction rank highly as options on the wheel of why John Cena lost. Of course, these options can extend anywhere from being spooked by a possessed child to the neon glow of his wrist bands getting in his eye. The wheel of why Cena loses has never gone bankrupt of ideas versus the conventional, he lost because the opponent was better. In wrestling, this is known as a clean loss.
In fact, three weeks after the Pipe Bomb promo aired when Punk and Cena faced off for the WWE Championship, Cena loses via attempted Montreal screwjob distraction.
A perceptive wrestling fan who’s watched the WWE for any stretch of time over the last two decades understands that John Cena is treated as an unbeatable diety. The WWE wants their viewing audience to believe that if Cena lost, he either should’ve or could’ve won.
CM Punk was one of many wrestlers who’ve entered into the WWE to play his part in the machine. The stars of the Attitude Era have moved on. Stone Cold and The Rock went their separate ways. The stars of the Ruthless Aggression era had their moments and eventually either filed into line behind Cena (Orton, Miz) or eventually left the company (Mysterio, Angle, Batista).
When the Ruthless Aggression era ran its course, the WWE was left without an identity. Every year the WWE wanted to establish a new identity for itself but its focus remained the same. Treat Cena as if he’s the modern era Hulk Hogan.
What tends to get lost in the opening remarks of CM Punk’s promo is the context of Vince McMahon’s infatuation with John Cena. Wrestling fans and media have a strange relationship with Cena. The support behind Cena has either fallen back on his reputation and denial.
Cena’s reputation as a person is one that has never been tainted. Punk’s promo begins as a show of respect to Cena, even though many of his issues relate back to how Cena has been directly in his way to the top of the WWE.
“John Cena, while you lay there, hopefully as uncomfortable as you possibly can be, I want you to listen to me. I want you to digest this because before I leave in 3 weeks with your WWE Championship, I have a lot of things I want to get off my chest.
First of all, Punk saying that he wishes Cena is as uncomfortable as he could possibly be is hilarious. Secondly, Punk does a masterful job of selling his pay-per-view match in the next line. That’s a line right out of the Paul Heyman promo playbook.
CM Punk establishes that he likes Cena, and respects him. Following that, Punk takes a curious dig at the rest of the roster.
Vince McMahon himself has mentioned that much of his roster seems to be content with where they’re at. McMahon believes that wrestlers that reach a higher status within the company reach for his supposed brass ring. More on that in a moment.
Even though Punk likes Cena, a lot of fans and wrestling media never want to admit that millions of people don’t like Cena. The viewership and popularity of wrestling went for a gradual decline before Reigns stepped in as the top guy and WWE’s cultural relevance has cratered. Even the signing of UFC superstar Ronda Rousey couldn’t spike interest.
The redundancy of Cena as the featured talent and lack of creative or memorable segments featuring new stars drove casual wrestling fans away. The new generation of wrestlers like Jack Swagger, Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio, or Dolph Ziggler wasn't drawing. The WWE was severely lacking in personality.
CM Punk was WWE’s breath of fresh air. He carried himself with a chip on his shoulder, and it resonated with the audience. His character’s pompous attitude as a heel was great for drawing heat, and cynical fans started to get behind Punk. Punk was framed as the villain, but he was the bad guy with a valuable message.
The bomb is dropped here. We’re not watching a promo anymore, but a shoot, where Punk is dropping character and relaying the message that the WWE is a scripted TV show where the director plays favorites. It’d be like if Michael Che was doing Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live and went off script and called out Lorne Michaels for giving Keenan Thompson all the best roles despite Che believing he’s the funniest SNL cast member. Somewhere Eddie Murphy would be laughing. Best?
Cena’s character is constantly remarking, even in present day, that he’s worked for everything he’s gotten. Punk’s insistence that Cena is known for engaging in backstage politics undermines what the Cena character is built on.
“You’re as good as kissing Vince’s ass as Hulk Hogan was. I don’t know if you’re as good as Dwayne though. He’s a pretty good ass kisser. Always was and still is.”
Punk fires at Vince’s other beloved stars Hogan and The Rock. Punk’s sentiments that Vince plays favorites with whoever will be his lap dog is meant to take shots at the fact Punk believes they get preferential treatment over him.
It’s a relatable statement with two distinct sides to the argument. There’s the argument that the smart employee should impress their boss in way possible in order to get ahead, and then there’s the hard worker who does their job but is more of an individualist and doesn’t go out of their way to please their boss. The latter employee is either going to be recognized for their talent and compensated by an unbiased boss properly, or the boss will be biased to whomever they like the most regardless of skill or talent within reason. This doesn’t mean the so-called “ass-kissing” employee isn’t as talented as any other employee. Most bosses would assumedly want an agreeable worker who doesn’t come with a lot of attitude and strings attached.
WWE storylines often mirror relatable real-life situations. The difference is the storyline ends with a scripted fight. The magic behind CM Punk’s real-life workplace struggle is that it was pure reality TV that fans at home could relate to. The Pipe Bomb was the most authentic moment in WWE television possibly ever.
Punk makes it clear we’re not listening to a scripted promo. There are elements of this segment and the dialogue itself that suggest there was some producer approval.
Punk’s wave to the camera is a credit to his showmanship and Punk’s awareness of being in the moment. It’s his presence of mind to consider the small details that made him such a great entertainer.
I mean technically no, but that would be in character and Punk wouldn’t be wrong for believing in himself.
“I’ve been the best ever since day one when I walked into this company. And I’ve been vilified and hated since that day, because Paul Heyman saw something in me that nobody else wanted to admit. That’s right, I’m a Paul Heyman guy. You know who else was a Paul Heyman guy? Brock Lesnar. And he split just like I’m splitting. But the biggest difference between me and Brock is I’m going to leave with the WWE Championship.”
Punk establishes an underdog story in a crafty way. Instead of being the underdog that’s faced with competition that is better than him, thus he must defeat the odds, Punk is blockaded by Vince McMahon. McMahon versus Steve Austin was a fictional story that fans bought into. McMahon versus Punk was a reality.
Punk’s battle against authority was more guerilla warfare than soap opera. To top it off, Punk’s actual contract became a massive part of the storyline. The palpable tension emanating from Punk makes this moment reverberate to this day.
“I’ve grabbed so many of Vincent K. McMahon’s imaginary brass rings that it’s finally dawned on me that they’re just that, they’re completely imaginary. The only thing that’s real is me and the fact that day in and day out, for almost six years, I have proved to everybody in the world that I am the best on this microphone, in that ring, even in commentary! Nobody can touch me!”
The infamous brass ring statement that Steve Austin would grill Vince McMahon on in a WWE Network podcast. “What about Cesaro, Vince?” asks Austin. Vince says he doesn’t believe his locker room has the drive to be the best in the ring or on the mic, Cesaro included.
Many wrestlers have come into the WWE over the last decade and none reached CM Punk’s level of credibility. A short Daniel Bryan run could make a faint argument, but Bryan has lacked staying power due to below average promos.
There have been supremely talented wrestlers that may have had the potential to eclipse Punk’s popularity, but the WWE and Vince McMahon have had no interest in diverting or diluting their steady flow of John Cena or Roman Reigns content.
Kevin Owens combines for the most talent in the ring and on the microphone but has only had one memorable storyline involving Chris Jericho.
Bray Wyatt was buried by Cena and then beaten by Orton, a double kiss of death. Wyatt’s consistency of being booked to lose against top tier opponents has weakened his sinister character.
I could go on forever listing superstars who had the potential to have memorable runs as WWE’s top talent, but I’d be here all day. Let’s continue.
“And yet no matter how many times I prove it, I’m not on your lovely little collector cups. I’m not on the cover of the program. I’m barely promoted. I don’t get to be in movies. I’m certainly not on any crappy show on the USA Network. I’m not on the poster of WrestleMania. I’m not on the signature that’s produced at the start of the show. I’m not on Conan O'Brien. I’m not on Jimmy Fallon. But the fact of the matter is, I should be.”
Sometimes in life, if you’re not getting what you want, you have to go out and demand it. After this promo, Punk was heavily promoted by popular demand.
What I find more fascinating about this statement was Punk’s shots at the USA Network. I can only imagine how many heart attacks were had between WWE and USA Network corporate employees when they heard Punk shit on the network. As a wrestling fan, I love that line, whether or not I thought Burn Notice was a good show.
Oh hey, let me get something straight. Those of you who are cheering me right now, you are just as big a part of me leaving as anything else. Because you’re the ones who are sipping on those collector cups right now. You’re the ones that buy those programs that my face isn’t on the cover of. And then at five in the morning at the airport, you try to shove it in my face so you can get an autograph and try to sell it on eBay because you’re too lazy to go get a real job.”
Punk has told stories of fans waiting for him outside of his home to take the trash out. It’s an uncomfortable reality of fandom. Punk’s line about his fans wanting his autograph so that they can sell it because they’re unemployed and lazy points to his cynicism and wit.
This was another aspect of the Pipe Bomb promo that made it work so well, it was full of lines and TV sins that are never supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to break character on TV, you’re not supposed to talk trash about your network, and you’re definitely not supposed to complain about your own fans. This perfect storm of rage and rule breaking is why the Pipe Bomb promo is the landmark WWE moment that it is.
CM Punk did everything you’re not supposed to do on television and became a massive star as a result.
The WWE has this hilarious notion that it’s the only wrestling promotion that exists. Wrestling promotions like New Japan, Ring of Honor, and especially TNA are in separate dimensions where other wrestlers will occasionally pop out of when they want a WWE contract. CM Punk was a Ring of Honor alumn, and his friend, Colt Cabana was still wrestling there.
Punk would later go on Colt Cabana’s podcast, The Art of Wrestling, where the two would have a long discussion about Punk’s WWE transgressions. Punk decrying the treatment he received from a specific WWE doctor lead to a libel suit pointed at Punk and Cabana. Punk and Cabana then had a recent falling out over Punk promising to pay Cabana’s legal fees.
“The reason I’m leaving is you people. Because after I’m gone, you’re still going to pour money into this company. I’m just a spoke on the wheel. The wheel is going to keep turning and I understand that. Vince McMahon is going to make money despite himself. He’s a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he’s not a billionaire? Because he surrounds himself with glad-handed, nonsensical, douchebag (censored) yes men, like John Laurinaitis, who’s going to tell him everything he wants to hear, and I’d like to think that maybe this company will be better after Vince McMahon is dead. But the fact is, it’s going to be taken over by his idiotic daughter and his doofus son-in-law and the rest of his stupid family.”
This is where Punk goes full-Nostradamus. Every statement he makes in his rant has carried over to the present. Punk ended up leaving and the WWE has made money despite its declining viewership.
As Vince McMahon has taken slow meandering steps back from the WWE, he has relinquished that control over to his daughter Stephanie McMahon and her husband Triple H.
What makes these lines so impactful is the potency of Punk’s vernacular. The way he emphasizes that the company won’t be better after Vince is dead. He calls Vince’s own family members idiotic and stupid. CM Punk is a masterclass in vocal delivery. Reading the words don’t do the same justice as hearing his rises and lulls in inflection and tonality. CM Punk has a spectacular cadence that’s unmistakable.
And finally, there’s the most curious line of the promo.
The assumption would be that Punk was going to detail a story in which Vince McMahon was a bully. Punk was also upset about an anti-bullying campaign ad he was cut from.
His microphone being cut off was a mic drop moment. Punk went from teetering on the edge by insulting the McMahon family to jumping off it when he said he would tell a personal Vince McMahon story.
After Punk realizes his mic was cut off, he gets up and starts yelling at the nearest camera. It’s a moment of anti-hero bravado that concludes the segment as well as it could have.
The legacy of the pipebomb is that the best promos come off as organic and authentic. The advantage for Punk was that his promo was mostly derived from his frustration with Vince and the WWE. Even still, Punk effectively sells you on his pay-per-view match by raising the stakes.
The reason that the Pipe Bomb promo is the defining moment of the last decade of WWE television, is because it’s the only moment that still has relevance today. It’s a moment fans can fondly return to and discuss and debate and argue about. CM Punk garnered mainstream attention. There’s no question when historians look back on CM Punk’s career, they will say this moment was the pinnacle.
The WWE has had a few notable moments over the last decade, Undertaker’s streak ending, Daniel Bryan’s run to the WWE Championship. But as shocking or exciting as those moments were, the WWE went on unchanged and unfazed. Undertaker would wrestle more matches and even lose another Wrestlemania match. Daniel Bryan’s career would, unfortunately, become derailed by injury and his fandom has waned since his return.
One unfortunate confession I must make is that I didn’t watch this segment live. I wasn’t a fan of wrestling in 2011 as a sophomore in high school. I started paying attention to wrestling again in 2014, towards the end of Punk’s time with the company. I caught the end of Punk’s feud with Paul Heyman and a short feud with The Shield.
The gravity of Punk’s Pipe Bomb promo is resonant for anyone who’s gotten into wrestling in the last decade. It was the last truly spontaneous moment of showmanship by a wrestler. There have been great matches and moments since, but none that are as accessible to point to as the Pipe Bomb. Long live the Pipe Bomb.